Sarah's Health Notes: Covid And Your Gut

Sarah's Health Notes: Covid And Your Gut

Just over a year ago, in early March 2020, I was felled by what I thought was a very nasty dose of food poisoning. I was wracked by severe abdominal pains, so exhausted I couldn't stand up – if I tried I fell to the floor within seconds, I felt feverish and lost my appetite. Those symptoms lasted for about 72 hours, then I recovered slowly over a couple of weeks.

Covid-19 was just making its presence felt but at that point the recognised symptoms for Covid were respiratory. A couple of months later, a study of over 200 patients in China revealed that 4% had gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms: diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Since then GI symptoms have increasingly been recognised as part of the Covid profile with 30-40% estimated to suffer

Recently an email from Medscape plopped into my In box with a transcript of an interview entitled ‘How Do Gut Bacteria Affect COVID-19 Severity?’  It was well past 10pm, I was in bed in my nightie about to turn the light off but when I read it I was so riveted (yes, I know… bit tragic) I had to forward it to various like-minded colleagues.

You can read it all here if you want but Medscape has usefully given the headlines at the top.

  • The gut, which regulates immune response, is one of the largest and most essential organs in the body. COVID-19 patients have been found to have poorer gut microbiome compositions compared with those without the disease. 
  • Dysbiosis — abnormal gut microbiome — may account for long-term COVID-19 symptoms. In studies, elderly patients and those with chronic conditions were more likely to have dysbiosis, which might explain their increased risk for severe disease. 
  • COVID-19 is not just a lung disease. Anywhere from 30% to 40% have gut manifestations too. Stool samples are now being used to test for COVID-19. 
  • The best way to promote good gut bacteria and reduce inflammation is to eat a healthy diet, with less processed food and food additives, and more fibre. Exercise is also important.
  • Select probiotics carefully; they are not all created equal.

I first learnt about probiotics over 30 years ago from a doctor who pointed out that in many countries probiotics have always been routinely recommended following antibiotic use, to replenish the store of good bacteria.

I became a devotee some 25 years ago, after stints reporting in India. I contracted a grim and debilitating gut infection, later diagnosed as amoebic dysentery, which left me in a state resembling post viral fatigue for months. (I say like post viral because dysentery is usually a bacterial infection.) Since then the role of probiotics in physical and also psychological health has been increasingly recognised, with over 26,000 research papers to date.

After my bout of what I am convinced was Covid-19, I continued taking my usual daily dose of probiotics and have been/am fit as a flea. (My latest find is a fermented food supplement called Bio-Live Gold, which I alternate with Mega Probiotics ND, see below.)

Microbiologist Professor Glenn Gibson of the University of Reading has been looking at the connection between Covid and the gut microbiome for a year. It started, he told me, when he read a German study where cold and flu patients given a general nutritional supplement that also contained probiotics (Seven Seas Multibionta) recovered two days more speedily on average and had 20% fewer symptoms than the control group who were just given a vitamin/mineral supplement.

So what’s the link with Covid? Both colds and flu are coronaviruses, as is Covid-19. What’s more our lungs also host microbiota, although ‘the lung has a small number compared to the gut,’ according to a review published in Nature: Science of Food. This states that ‘Probiotics could help prevent COVID-19 by maintaining the human GI or lung microbiota because dysbiosis plays a major role in the susceptibility of people to infectious diseases’ adding that ‘boosting the natural immunity of the population using probiotics before, during, or after COVID-19 infection is rational’.

Since then, evidence has mounted for the benefits of probiotics in connection with Covid, including trials where hospital patients given probiotics had better outcomes. As well as supporting the immune system, Professor Gibson says probiotics probably dampen inflammation, a response of key concern with Covid.

Another relevant fact is that taking a probiotic can enhance the effects of the vaccine: ‘probiotics act as an adjuvant to the vaccines so they perform better, by stimulating the immune response,’ explains Professor Gibson.

Together with 125 scientific colleagues, Professor Gibson wrote to Matt Hancock pointing out that this was worth researching. Nothing has happened so far. But, as he says, there is nothing negative about taking a probiotic and many potential positives in different areas of health. ‘It’s a no brainer,’ we agree.

Pharmacist Shabir Daya says there are several good probiotics that contain the strains of bifidobacteria and lactobacillus that have been shown to support the immune system. These include:

Mega Probiotic ND, £21 for 60 capsules, one month’s supply: this contains eight strains of probiotics and is one of my medicine cupboard staples

Bio-Kult Advanced Multi-Strain Formulation, £15.29 for 60 capsules: this contains 14 strains of beneficial bacteria – I have several farming friends who swear by this product.